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The University of Hartford

Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for
May/June 2009

May 7

Johannes Brahms
Birth: May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Death: April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria
The son of a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, Brahms began his musical career as a teenaged pianist, playing in cafes, taverns, and even brothels. By his early twenties he enjoyed the friendship of violinists Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim and the pianist Franz Liszt. But the colleague and mentor who promoted his career was Robert Schumann, who all but adopted him and became his most ardent supporter. Brahms was championed by Schumann as music's greatest hope for the future. Brahms became for conservative musical journalists the symbol of musical tradition, a stalwart against the "degeneration" represented by the music of Wagner and his school. A conservative northerner and devout Lutheran, Brahms embraced orderliness and strict form.  In 1854 he was appointed court director of music to the prince of Detmold-Lippe. Following Schumann's death in 1856, Brahms became the closest confidant and lifelong friend of the composer's widow, pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann. In 1862 Brahms settled in Vienna, where he accepted the post of conductor of the Singakademie. In every genre in which he composed, Brahms produced works that have become staples of the repertory. His most ambitious work, A German Requiem is the composer's singular reinterpretation of that age-old sacred form. The four symphonies are cornerstones of the symphonic literature. Brahms' concertos are, similarly, in a monumental, symphonic vein. The two piano concertos, the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto require soloists with both considerable technical skill and stamina. His chamber music is among the most sophisticated and exquisitely crafted of the Romantic era. Though the piano sonata never held for Brahms the same appeal it had for Beethoven, he produced a large body of music for the piano. He showed a particular affinity for variations — notably, on themes of Schumann, Handel, and Paganini. He also produced a number of folk dances and character pieces such as ballades, intermezzi, and rhapsodies. Collectively, these constitute one of the essential bodies of keyboard work from 19th century. After a life of spectacular musical triumphs and failed loves (the composer was involved in several romantic relationships but never wed), Brahms died of liver cancer.
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky
Birth: May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia
Death November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Tchaikovsky was born into a family of five brothers and one sister.  From early childhood, he was obsessively attracted to music. He began taking piano lessons at age four and showed remarkable talent, eventually surpassing his own teacher's abilities. By age nine, he exhibited severe nervous problems, not least because of his overly sensitive nature. The following year, he was sent to St. Petersburg to study at the School of Jurisprudence. The loss of his mother in 1854 dealt a crushing blow to the young Tchaikovsky. In 1859, he took a position in the Ministry of Justice, but longed for a career in music, attending concerts and operas at every opportunity. He finally began study in harmony in 1861, and enrolled at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory the following year, eventually studying composition with Anton Rubinstein. In 1866, the composer relocated to Moscow, accepting a professorship of harmony at the new conservatory, and shortly afterward wrote his First Symphony, suffering, however, a nervous breakdown in the process. His opera The Voyevoda appeared in 1867-1868 and he began another, The Oprichnik, in 1870. Other works from the 1870s included the First String Quartet, the Second and Third Symphonies, and the ballet Swan Lake. In 1876, Tchaikovsky traveled to Paris with his brother, Modest, and then visited Bayreuth, where he met Liszt, but was snubbed by Wagner. Despite limited financial success, by 1876, Tchaikovsky was an established composer. In July 1878, Tchaikovsky, despite his homosexuality, foolishly married Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, an obsessed admirer. Their disastrous union lasted just months and the composer attempted suicide in the midst of this episode. Near the end of that year, Nadezhda von Meck, a woman he would never meet, became his patroness and frequent correspondent. Further excursions abroad came in the 1880s, along with a wave of successful compositions, including the Serenade for Strings, 1812 Overture, and the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. In both 1888 and 1889, Tchaikovsky went on successful European tours as a conductor, meeting Brahms, Grieg, Dvorák, Gounod, and other notable musical figures. Sleeping Beauty was premiered in 1890, and The Nutcracker in 1892, both with success. Throughout Tchaikovsky's last years, he was continually plagued by anxiety and depression. A trip to Paris and the United States followed one dark nervous episode in 1891. Tchaikovsky wrote his Sixth Symphony, "Pathétique," in 1893, and it was successfully premiered that year. The composer died ten days later of cholera, as a result of deliberately drinking unboiled water. Some contend that his final act was forced on him by those who threatened to reveal his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky was the creator of some of the most popular melodies in all of classical music. The power and communicative sweep of his best music has attained classic status, even if it lacks the formal boldness and harmonic sophistication of the works of his contemporaries, Wagner and Bruckner. It is Tchaikovsky's unique melodic appeal that makes the music sound familiar on first hearing.

May 28

George Dyson
Birth: May 28, 1883 in Halifax, England
Death: September 28, 1964 in Winchester, England
Dyson was born to a working-class family and showed a special affinity for the keyboard.  He was playing the organ at his church at 13 and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists three years later. Dyson entered the Royal College of Music (RCM) at age 16 and in 1904, he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship and spent the next four years studying in Italy, Austria, and Germany. Dyson's early life and training were rooted in the late Romantic era and his early compositions strongly reflected the influence of Richard Strauss, Joseph Joachim, and other turn-of-the century composers. His symphonic poem Siena was very Straussian and was performed under the baton of Arthur Nikisch. After returning to England, he devoted much of his attention to teaching, first at the Royal Naval College at Osborne and then at Marlborough College before joining the Army at the outbreak of World War I. During his Army service, Dyson authored a manual on the use of the hand grenade that became standard issue. He was appointed a professor at the RCM in 1921 and began teaching at Winchester College three years later. It was during this period that Dyson separated himself from the mainstream of English music. A passionate believer in the view that music had to move forward, he felt that the Brahms-influenced music of Sir Edward Elgar, the folk song-inspired works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the Celtic romanticism of Sir Arnold Bax were all remnants of an era that had passed. Dyson abandoned his early compositions — almost none of which survive — and pursued teaching and writing during the early '20s. In 1928, Dyson emerged as a significant composer with In Honour of the City, a work for chorus and orchestra built on a series of verses attributed to William Dunbar, dating from the year 1500. The piece displayed a majesty reminiscent of Elgar and Sir Charles Hubert Parry and found immediate public and critical favor; but it was also written in a leaner, more modernistic style. That piece led him directly to the work that is usually regarded as his crowning achievement, The Canterbury Pilgrims, constructed around the work of Chaucer. Dyson was principally associated with choral music over the next decade, but his Symphony in G and his Violin Concerto gave him considerable credibility as a writer of orchestral music. In 1938, Dyson assumed the job of director of the RCM. A knighthood followed in 1942 and he remained at the RCM for another decade. He continued composing new music in his peculiar style, modern yet tonal and melodic, right into the early '60s, though by that time even The Canterbury Pilgrims had fallen out of the repertory of England's choral societies. In the mid-'90s, amid the growing interest in English music beyond the realm of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Dyson's music was rediscovered and has been recorded by a number of artists.

Gyorgy Ligeti

Birth: May 28, 1923 in Discöszentmáton, Transylvania (Hungary)
Death: June 12, 2006 in Vienna, Austria
Ligeti was born in Transylvania and grew up in Kolozsvar, Klausenburg. At the age of 14, he began taking piano lessons and soon wrote his first composition, a waltz. Because he was a Jew living under the Nazi-puppet regime in Hungary, Ligeti was forbidden university study. Instead he enrolled in the Kolozsvar Conservatory in 1941, and began studies with Ferenc Farkas, a Respighi pupil. Later, in Budapest, he also studied with pianist-composer Pál Kadosa. In January 1944, Ligeti was arrested and sent to a labor camp where he remained imprisoned until 1945. Other family members were sent to Auschwitz, where only his mother survived. Ligeti graduated from the Budapest Academy of Music in 1949 and began an extended period studying folk music. In the years of 1950-1956, he served as a professor at the Budapest Academy. His music was largely unadventurous during this period, owing to restrictions by the Hungarian Communist regime. Ligeti and his wife fled their homeland during the Revolution in 1956, settling in Vienna. Ligeti began studying and composing at the Cologne-based Electronic Music Studio from 1957 to 1959, producing the influential Artikulation, one of his first electronic works. Other important progressive works followed, such as the orchestral composition, Apparitions and Atmosphères. In 1959, Ligeti began serving as visiting professor at the Academy of Music in Stockholm and also started teaching courses at Darmstadt. His Requiem was another success, as were Ramifications for strings, and Clocks and Clouds. In 1972, Ligeti became Composer in Residence at Stanford University and the following year took on a professorship at the Hamburg Academy of Music. Ligeti composed his opera Le Grand Macabre in the period 1975-1977, but revised it in the 1990s, with the final version completed in 1997. It has become one of his most popular large works. In the 1980s the composer stopped writing electronic music. Ligeti retired from his post as professor of composition at the Hamburg Music Academy in 1989. Ligeti received his share of awards and prizes, including the 1986 Grawemeyer Prize and the 1996 Music Prize of the International Music Council. Ligeti became one of the most important avant-garde composers in the latter half of the 20th century. He stands with Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, and Cage as one of the most innovative and influential among progressive figures of his time. His early works show the influence of Bartók and Kodály. In Apparitions and Atmosphères, he developed a style fashioned from chromatic cluster chords that are devoid of conventional melody, pitch and rhythm, but instead grow into timbres and textures that yield new sonic possibilities. The composer referred to this method as "micropolyphony." In Aventures, Ligeti devised a vocal technique in which the singers are required to make a full range of vocalizations, cries and nonsense noises to create a kind of imaginary, non-specific drama, but with rather specifically expressed emotions. Ligeti was almost alone among progressive composers from the latter 20th century to write popular and widely performed music.

June 11

Richard Strauss
Birth: June 11, 1864 in Munich, Germany
Death: September 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Strauss was the son of Franz Joseph Strauss, the principal hornist in the Munich Court Orchestra. Richard demonstrated musical talent at an early age, and extensive training in piano, violin, theory, harmony, and orchestration equipped him to produce music of extraordinary polish and maturity by the time he reached adulthood. His primary teachers had been his father, who was a musical conservative, and Ludwig Thuille, a Munich School composer and family friend. Strauss' Serenade for 13 Winds, written when he was 17, led conductor Hans von Bülow to pronounce him "by far the most striking personality since Brahms." Bülow was able to give Strauss his first commission and an assistant conductor position. Through new friendships, Strauss learned to admire the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the music of Wagner and Liszt. He embarked on a long career of conducting and composing, which took him throughout Europe and the U.S. From the beginning of Strauss' career as a composer, it was evident that the orchestra was his natural medium. With the composition of the "symphonic fantasy" Aus Italien in 1886, Strauss embarked on a series of works that represents both one of the pivotal phases of his career and works of central importance in the late German Romantic repertoire. Though he did not invent the tone poem per se, he brought it to its pinnacle. In Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, and Also sprach Zarathustra Strauss displayed his abundant gift for orchestration as a dramatic device as few composers ever had (or have since). With the arrival of the 20th century, Strauss' interest turned more fully to opera, resulting in a body of unforgettable works that have long been fixtures of the repertoire. Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier are just a few of his best-known works for the stage. In 1919, Strauss became co-director of the Vienna Staatsoper, but was forced to resign five years later by his partner, Franz Schalk, who resented being left with many of the operational duties while Strauss was frequently away guest conducting or being feted as a great composer. When the political situation in Europe worsened in the 1930s, political naïveté led to Strauss' confused involvement the Nazi propaganda machine, and the composer eventually alienated both the Nazis and their opponents. With the end of World War II, however, he was permitted to resume his professional life. Later, he began to have serious health problems, his financial situation had been compromised, and the monuments that embodied great German art for him — Goethe's Weimar house; the Dresden, Munich, and Vienna opera houses — had been destroyed in the war. But, throughout his last years, works such as the Oboe Concerto and the gorgeously expressive Four Last Songs attest to Strauss' unwavering confidence in his own musical voice.

June 18

Ignaz Josef Pleyel
Birth: June 18, 1757 in Ruppertsthal, Austria
Death: November 14, 1831 in Paris, France

Remembered mostly as Haydn's rival during his London journey of 1792, Pleyel was the 24th child (out of 38!) of an impoverished schoolteacher. He was admitted to the class of the composer Vanhal and came to the attention of a Hungarian nobleman who paid Pleyel to study and live with Franz Joseph Haydn at Eisenstadt. Pleyel made rapid progress, and he reported that he and Haydn enjoyed a close, friendly relationship. In 1776, Haydn placed Pleyel's marionette opera Die Fee Urgele (The Fairy Urgele) on the schedule for performance at Esterháza. It was also played at the Vienna National Theater. Pleyel probably worked briefly for his noble patron, Count Ladislaus Erdödy, and in the early 1780s traveled widely in Italy. He composed pieces for lira (hurdy-gurdy) for King Ferdinand IV of Naples to play and wrote an opera, Ifigenia in Aulide, which was premiered at the Teatro San Carlo in 1785. Its success generated a further 18 performances. The previous year Pleyel had become the assistant to Franz Xaver Richter, Kapellmeister of Strasbourg Cathedral, and inherited the post when Richter died in 1789. In general, the years 1785 to 1795 were his most productive period as a composer. During the French Revolution, Pleyel moved to London, where he was invited to conduct the Professional Concerts. This was the period when Haydn was also giving concerts in London, but the two composers personally ignored the rival publicity that their respective publicists generated. As it turned out, there was room for both; while Haydn's concerts were better attended and got more attention, Pleyel's concerts were successes. The London tour did well enough, in fact, that in 1792 Pleyel bought the Château d'Itenwiller at St. Pierre, near Strasbourg. He immediately wrote a pro-Revolutionary hymn called La revolution du 10 août 1792 ou Le tocsin allégorique (The Revolution of August 10, 1792, or The Allegorical Alarm), which, like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, calls for cannons in the score. No doubt he wrote it in part to please the revolutionary authorities, but there is no proof to the often-told tale that he was arrested and released only after composing the hymn under guard. In 1795 Pleyel also acquired a house in Paris, opened a piano factory, and founded a publishing house. This became one of the most important in Europe, issuing over 4,000 compositions during its nearly four decades of existence. Pleyel pioneered a system of mutual reissues between his own firm and other great publishers of the time, including Artaria, Breitkopf, and Simrock. He was also the first person to distribute miniature scores for study. Among the composers Pleyel published were Beethoven, Haydn, Boccherini, Clementi, Méhul, and Rossini. In 1805 (during a temporary peace between Napoleon and Austria) Pleyel returned to Vienna, was reunited with the aging Haydn, praised Beethoven's skill as an improviser, and arranged performances of his string quartets, which won favor with the Viennese. After his return to Paris, he gradually retreated to his rural estate. In 1834 he retired and sold the assets of his still-successful business.

Copyright©WWUH: May/June Program Guide, 2009

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